The First Time I Killed Something to Eat
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everything gets hungry.
By Eugene S. Robinson
I have never been one of those people who anyone would accuse of being a picky eater. Fish sticks for lunch? While my classmates with finer palates turned up their noses at the gustatory genius of baked, compressed fish products, I was overjoyed.
The only food that I have ever turned up my nose at was British food in the early ’90s, when they still hadn’t figured out how to fry an egg without lard and tons of salt. And prison food because it barely warrants being called food. I managed to go to jail for only four hours, though, so maybe what I ate wasn’t representative of prison food in general.
I’m a pescatarian now, but in 1978, I’d eat anything, just as long as there was enough of it. Which is where the problem started. The summer of ’78 I was working as a lifeguard at a camp for inner-city kids up along the Hudson River. It was a long train ride from New York City. I got to camp early and left late.
Thus the plan was hatched. We set a date. I’d bring two buckets, sticks for a fire, a bag of ice, two pots, a knife and some rope.
Which is to say I’d have killed for a few extra fish sticks. Or even a fish stick. In a camp full of growing kids, if you were late to the cafeteria, as I often was after prepping stuff at the pool or cleaning up before closing up, you ate nothing.
Add to this the fact that I was spending my nights drinking and dancing, and I was dropping weight, fast. The role of the drinking-and-dancing, Speedo-sporting, mirrored-sunglasses-wearing keeper of pool order was all well and good. But no one enjoys being hungry.
The camp also had a farm, although calling it a farm is maybe a little aggressive. “Petting zoo” is more appropriate. Playing the role of Old MacDonald was a hippie named Lloyd. Given that the camp was partially funded by anti-war activist and folk singer Pete Seeger, there was no shortage of hippies. But Lloyd was a different kind of hippie in that in full-on money-where-your-mouth-is style, he was getting a degree in agricultural sciences.
Lloyd knew all kinds of stuff about all kinds of stuff and the city kid in me dug his vibe (think Shaggy from Scooby-Doo).
It wasn’t long before my constant litany of complaints about being hungry cut through.
“So you’re hungry, yeah?” Lloyd said one day.
“Man, I’m starving!”
“You want some chicken?”
“You got some chicken?”
“Look around, man.”
And for the first time I looked around, like really looked around. Lambs, goats, geese, a donkey and, yes, chickens. As so often happens when someone says stuff to you that you find unbelievable, you tend to not believe the connection that was just made, either by him or by you, of murder most fowl.
“You mean these?”
“How do we do it?” My wheels were spinning. I had gone fishing before, so I had already made the connection between what was on my plate and in my mouth, but never quite so directly as just then in that shaded spot at the edge of camp.
“I’m worried about the blood,” Lloyd said. “We’ll have to take them deeper into the woods, so if the foxes smell it they don’t come and raid the rest.”
Thus the plan was hatched. We set a date. I’d bring two buckets, sticks for a fire, a bag of ice, two pots, a knife and some rope. When the date came, Lloyd schooled me on what needed to happen.
“We hang them upside down and tie the rope around their necks. The bucket goes on the other end of the rope. We cut their throats and drain the blood into the bucket. Then I throw them in a pot of boiling water. We pull the feathers off after that and then throw them in a bucket of icy water. We cut them open and pull out the digestive tract without breaking it so it doesn’t soil the meat.”
“OK,” I said. Once the chickens were strung upside down, I told Lloyd, “Go ahead.”
“Yeah. You’re the ag sciences guy! Get in there!” The chickens weren’t squawking or even moving much. Lloyd made a weak pass across one chicken’s throat with the knife.
And again. And again, nothing.
“I can’t do it, man,” Lloyd said. “I know I’m ag sciences, but we never did this shit in class.”
I grabbed the knife from him. “Which should I do first?” I asked, trying to work up the nerve I needed.
“Well, Rebecca. Or Henry, I guess.”
He had given them names. I was set to murder things with names. Things that were watching me. Things that were watching me as I cupped their heads and dragged the Swiss Army knife across their throats. Rebecca and Henry were no longer Rebecca and Henry.
When the chickens were prepped and ready to cook, I asked Lloyd if he wanted some. He shook his head. I went back to my room, where I set up a hot plate and a frying pan.
“You’re not cooking that shit in here!” My roommate was freaked out. My roommate who ate meat.
“I am,” I said. And after my roommate fled, I cooked and ate both of them.
The whole meal I thought about Rebecca and Henry, Henry and Rebecca.
The meal was great. In fact, I haven’t had a better chicken meal since. But I’ve also forgotten every chicken meal since. But not Rebecca. Or Henry. And that’s probably the way it should be.